Feb 20, 2013

The killing of 13 Chinese sailors on the Mekong:
A puzzle about the drug hub in the Golden Triangle with missing pieces

See the locations on Golden Triangle Google Map

Posted February 14 in 2013

Picture by Mike UCL
The Mae Kong river from the Golden Triangle viewpoint. Thailand on the left, Myanmar in the middle, Laos on the right. Nearby 13 Chinese sailors were killed in October 2011.

Naw Kham was tracked down by a Chinese elite unit - in Bokeo province in the north of Laos, after he had crossed the Mekong River from Myanmar into Laos. He was arrested on April 25 in 2012. Only a few days later he was extradited from Laos to China. There he is wating now in the prison. His only hope is the appeal against the death sentence he got from judges in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province. A drug baron from Myanmar caught in Laos and sentenced in China - this has never happened before.

Naw Kham, presented to the media by Lao authorities before his deportation to China

Shortly after the two cargo ships Huaping and Yuxing 8 had crossed the boarder to Thailand on the Mekong near Chiang Saen they were entered by the elite Thai military unit called the Pha Muang Taskforce, named after an ancient Thai warrior king. What happened before and afterwards on October 5 in 2011? There are different tales from more than hundred witnesses. Clear is only: 13 Chinese sailors from Yunnan were found dead afterwards. The captain of one boat lay dead over an AK-47 assault rifle. The twelf other sailors had to be fished from the Mekong. Most victims had been gagged and blindfolded, with their hands bound behind their backs. Some had massive head wounds; others had been sprayed with bullets. "It was the deadliest assault on Chinese nationals overseas in modern times", reported Reuters. A shockwave went through the Chinese media. And the Thai government in Bangkok soon felt the heat of the diplomatic pressure from Peking. The Pha Muang Taskforce pointed to Naw Kham, in Thai media also written Jai Norkham.

The story, that emerged from these newspaper articles: Since 2006 Naw Kham (43) - an etnic Shan and citizen of Myanmar - ran "a protection racket taxing drug smugglers along the Mekong" (the Shan Herald Agency). Xian Yanming, a member of the Chinese investigative team, told Chinese Central Television that Naw Kham had been operating with a force of around 100 men, known as Hawngleuk Militia. Equipped with weapons such as AK 47s, machine guns, pistols and grenades. He is said to have committed crimes including murder, kidnapping, drug trafficking and extortion. They were pirates taking a tax also from ships on the Mekong. Naw Kham and his militia had terrorized this part of the Mekong River for nearly a decade. So were the tales. He had to be caught. And then the extradition of Naw Kham and some of his men to China took a big burden from the shoulders of the governments of Thailand and Laos.

Naw Kham confessed his responsability for the killing of the 13 Chinese - according to some reports. During the trial in september 2012 in Kunming Hsang Kham, the number two of the militia, said according to telegraph.co.uk: "Chinese boats did not pay up, and reported us to Burmese soldiers, which hurt our gang badly." And he added: "Naw Kham wanted revenge. On October 5, after the boats were hijacked, he told us: 'Kill them all'". But Naw Kham denied the murders in front of the court.

What happened really on October 5 in 2011, in the famous Golden Triangle, where the borders of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar converge? Tourists looking out from the point of view in Sop Ruak see a casino on the Lao side of the Mekong, a casino on the Myanmar side and they can observe the Mekong River emerging from the mountains far behind. From the No Man's Land with isolated jungle valleys and mountains between Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and China. Looking out you may remember newspaper stories about a lawless land, where rebel armies inside Myanmar fight against the government, where governments and security forces are far away. You may have read that today Myanmar is the world's second-biggest opium producer after Afghanistan. You have heard, that Myanmar is the producer of Methamphetamine drugs known as yaba, ice, shabu or just "crazy drugs". Every year hundreds of millions of this pills - worth hundreds of millions of dollars - have to cross borders, find ways of transport into Thailand and Laos. Shan State Army–South (on the Thai-Myanmar border) and United Wa State Army (on the border to China) are said to make a lot of money in the drug business. This has been reported for example by Chiangrai Times. Someone has to organize and protect this business, find ways through the No Man's Land and onwards. Someone has to have good connections in Thailand and Laos.

Was Naw Kham with his around hundred men the big mastermind?

“Kham’s capture has taken a massive load off our shoulders. The fact that his gang is now destroyed means a new lease of life for trade and tourism on the Mekong,” said a Thai security official in Chiang Saen port (Thailand) according to Asia Pasific Defence Forum. "This is a warning in case similar cases occur in the future," said Liu Zhi, a professor of international relations at Yunnan university according to telegraph.co.uk. So this warning went to other criminals in the area. There are doubts about the role of Naw Kham. He has "become a near-legendary figure", wrote Andrew R.C. Marshall for Reuters. "So many shipping attacks are attributed to this 46-year-old ethnic Shan that it seems as if the Mekong ambitions of the Asian superpower are being foiled by a medieval-style drug lord with a few dozen hill tribe gunmen."

Despite the judgments by Chinese courts the murder of the 13 Chinese Sailors remains mysterious. No clear proves and motifs emerged from the courtrooms. Also investigations in Thailand raised questions. There are pieces of a puzzle - but some pieces are still missing for the clear picture. The pieces:

A Chinese patrol boat on the Mekong came under fire in 2008, three police officers were killed, one injured.

In April 2011 a casino boat was seized by pirates near Sam Puu Island and 19 crewmen were held. Zhao Wei, representant of the unknown owners of King Romans Casino seems to have paid for a 733,000 US-Dollar ransom. The Shan Herald Agency for News reported this. A Casino spokesman even denied the existence of the kidnapping. But Democrazy for Burma reported on April 11 in 2011: 13 Chinese who were kidnapped by Golden Triangle godfather Naw Kham were released Friday, 8 April, 4 days after they were taken by his men, according to a source close to the King Romans casino in Laos.

In September 2011 a raid on the casino of King Romans Group in Laos brought 20 sacks of drugs (worth 1.6 million US Dollars) to the daylight - according to Thailand’s deputy prime minister Chalerm Yubamroong.

On October 5 in 2011 the 13 Chinese sailors were found dead. The boats Huaping and Yuxing 8 wer not only carrying the officiall load - fuel, apples and garlic - but also 920,000 methamphetamine pills with an estimated value of 6 million US-Dollars. It remains unclear where the drugs came from and to whom they belonged to. Where the Chinese sailers involved in the drug trade? Or came the drugs on board on the way down from Yunnan?

After October 5 the men of the Pha Muang unit came under suspense to be involved in the murders. Again Reuters: "On October 28 nine members of the Pha Muang Taskforce appeared before police in the northern city of Chiang Rai to answer allegations of murder and tampering with evidence." The nine soldiers denied. A Thai parliamentary comittee investigated the massacre. "Circumstantial evidence suggests that Thai officials were involved in the sailors' deaths", the House Foreign Affairs Standing Committee said on January 12 in an apparent reference to the military task force. "However, their motive, and whether it is connected to the drugs found on the ships, remains inconclusive," it said in preliminary findings seen by Reuters. There were many versions about what happened on the two boats. One has been published on mathaba.net: "The first account of what had occurred was floated by senior Thai officers of the RTA Third Army's Pha Muang Task Force (...). According to this version of events, the barges had been hi-jacked and the crew killed north of the Thai border where the river flows between Myanmar and Laos by drug smugglers who were planning to use the vessels to smuggle drugs into Thailand. As they entered Thai waters around 1:30 pm on October 5, they were intercepted by a PMTF unit acting on a tip-off. A fire-fight reportedly lasting half an hour between the PMTF and the smugglers erupted during which it appeared the dead man on the deck had been shot and killed while all his associates escaped overboard."

The attacks on Chinese Ships did not stop after the killing of the 13 Chinese sailors. In January 2012 a Chinese cargo ship carrying logs on the Mekong river was fired on by unidentified attackers. The Shengtai-11 was returning to Xishuangbanna, in the Chinese border province of Yunnan, from Thailand when it was fired on from the Lao side of the river. No-one was injured, as Reuters reported.

Some tales underline the role of a Thai godfather: Chamras Phacharoen, better known as Pu Nuad (“Moustache”), is believed to be a close associate of Naw Kham. In September 2011 in Mae Sai (Thailand) his home was raided by joint Thai and Burmese officials according to Shan Herald. Nothing incriminating was found. But the Shan Herald wrote later: "Chamras Phacharoen aka Olarn Somphongphand had planned the killing of the sailors and planted 920 000 speed pills to implicate Zhao Wei, the owner of the Kings Romans casino in Laos’ Tonpheung." On Juli 13 2012 Changrai Times wrote, that Chiang Rai provincial court had approved a warrant for the arrest of Olarn Sompongphand, who is believed to have been involved in the attack on the two Chinese boats and to be involved in the narcotics trade. And he is also wanted for the murder of former deputy interior minister and former Chaiyaphum MP Santi Chaiwirattana in Chiang Rai in 2011. The Police believe that Olarn - whose wife is a Shan - has fled to border areas under the control of Myanmar’s Wa ethnic group. In the same time Police General Pansiri said according to Bangkok Post, that his team has issued arrest warrants for the nine soldiers for their suspected involvement in the murder of the 13 sailors. In November 2012 Thai police and military forces raided 50 locations in Mae Chan, Mae Sai and Mae Fah Luang in the northern province of Chiang Rai according to subzerosiam.com. Five locations were major drug warehouses and homes of drug syndicate network figures. The authorities, meanwhile, seized the assets of Jamras Sompongphand, alleged member of a drug trafficking ring in the Golden Triangle. Police confiscated assets of more than 500 million Bath from Mr Jamras in Mae Sai district to be determined whether they were acquired from illicit drug trading.

What is clear: Drug trafficking out ot the Golden Triangle was not much disturbed by the arrest of Naw Kham. In May 2012 Thomas Fuller writes on nytimes.com: "The Thai authorities seized 31.3 million methamphetamine pills from October through March — a 45 percent increase from a year earlier, when 21.6 million pills were seized, according to a recently published Thai government report. (...) Over the past three years, corrupt officials in Thai hospitals have been complicit in the drug business, selling to Myanmar-based gangs millions of cold tablets made from pseudoephedrine, which is used in the production of methamphetamines. (...) An estimated 48 million cold pills have been seized or disappeared from public hospitals since 2008, according to Thailand’s Narcotics Control Board."
In December 2012 Thailands notional police chief Adul Saengsingkaew launched raids at 107 locations across the northern provinces of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, as Bangkok Post documented. "The police chief said that the region is known to be a major narcotics hub". Police also seized assets attributed to the cartel once headed by Naw Kham, included a house in San Sai district, cars, gold and cash with an estimated value of 25 million baht. In Mae Taeng district anti-narcotics agents busted a Laotian Hmong drug ring and arrested Chatchawan Atsawacharonekul (23) along with half a million meth pills and 7.3 million baht in cash. The suspect was hired to transport the drug shipment to dealers in Chiang Mai. A 74-rai opium plantation was also destroyed.

In January 2013 a special unit of the Pha Mueang Task Force killed three drug smuggling suspects in Mae Sai, more than 1.2 million methamphetamine pills were being seized during the operation. The drug smugglers were believed to be part of a drug caravan of Lieutenant Colonel Yi Say's drug trafficking network, as mcot-web.mcot.net reported. Five of them were killed earlier in a clash with the authorities on January 6.

On January 10 a Lieutenant, dressed in his uniform, was arrested with 1.3 million methamphetamine tablets and 30 kilos of crystal methamphetamine hidden in the panels of his black Ford Ranger pickup truck. It was Surapol Phromvijit, presenting the identity card of Internal Security Operational Command and stating that he was a special officer with responsibilities of border patrol and international security intelligence (see democracyforburma.wordpress.com). This was not the first arrest of officers delivering drugs. In Nan in 2012 a Lieutenant and four non-commissioned officers were arrested delivering drugs in a police car from Chiang Rai to Ayutthaya. In August 2012 Chiang Mai Provincial Police arrested Police Senior Sergeant Major Wasan Wisarutwetsaphu (45), a policeman belonging to the Border Patrol Police 33, in San Sai, with 24,000 yaba pills in his truck.

The questions remain: What was the role of Naw Kham? Thai MP Sunai Chulpongsatorn, who chaired the parliamentary foreign affairs committee during its investigation, believed that a Naw Kham legend had been created by attributing attacks by other bandits in the Golden Triangle to him. "There are many Naw Khams, not just one," he said. "It's like in a drama. He's a made-up character. He exists, but it seems he has been given a lot of extra importance." He Xilun, who lost his older brother and sister-in-law in the attack on the two Chinese ships, was doubtful too during the trial in China. “In this trial the truth has not been revealed”, he told "The Irrawaddy". “We have worked on ships on the Mekong for 14 years and never once heard that Chinese ships pay protection money to Naw Kham", he said, adding that only the tip of the iceberg has come forth in the case. The nine soldiers of Pha Muang, who were on the two cargo ships, until now have not been charged and remained on active military duty.

So only something comes out very clear from all the tales around the killing mistery: A drug trade business worth hundreds of millions of dollars attracts not only militia men but also poorly paid law enforcement officials across the region, in Myanmar, China, Laos and Thailand. May be the truth in the case of Naw Kham and the 13 dead Chinese sailors will remain hidden among many other secrets along the Mekong River in the Golden Triangle. Nearly for sure human rights activists will not protest against the death sentence for a militia leader from the No Man's Land.

What remains furthermore: China's presence in the Golden Triangle has grown. After the killing of the sailors joint ship patrols on the Mekong were sanctioned by China, Myanmar, Thailand and Laos. In December 2011, after less than a fortnight of patrols, three Myanmar soldiers were killed in a clash with suspected drug traffickers. The cargo and passenger shipping from Yunnan to Chiang Saen - blocked after the killings - has resumed. On October 7 in 2012 a tourist ferry carrying 21 Britons and 2 South Africans set off from China’s Jinghong to Thailand’s Chiang Saen. No incidents have been reported since then.

Added February 20 in 2013:

China considered using a drone to kill drug warlord Naw Kham in the Myanmar section of the Golden Triangle last year, the Chinese anti-drug agent who chased him for months has revealed. "One plan was to use an unmanned aircraft to carry 20 kilogrammes of TNT to bomb the area," said Liu Yuejin, commander of the Chinese anti-drug force based in Yunnan, in the Chinese newspaper Global Times. But then the Chinese officials wanted Naw Kham taken alive. According to Bangkok Post it was the first time any Chinese official has spoken openly of the development of drones by the country.

Added February 27 in 2013:

Myanmar drug lord Naw Kham and three of his accomplices, convicted of murdering 13 Chinese sailors on the Mekong River in 2011, will be executed on March 1 according to Xinhua. They will be executed by lethal injection in the city of Kunming in southwest China's Yunnan Province, the Kunming Intermediate People's Court said. Naw Kham's three accomplices were identified as Hsang Kham from Thailand, Yi Lai, stateless, and Zha Xika, Laotian.

Read also:
After the Execution of Naw Kham in China: Mekong Safety remains an Issue
Beijing Flaunts Cross-Border Clout in Search for Drug Lord on nytimes.com

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